Second Era Millwork, 1870-1940

By John M. Corbett

Millwork for the great majority of the historic buildings in existence today, those built between the Civil War and WWII, was produced under a nationwide distribution system more uniform and comprehensive than any in existence today.  This is what we call “Second Era” millwork. This means that your historic molding was very likely distributed nationwide by one of a very few companies who all shared the same molding profiles and sent out the same catalog.  Understanding this can give you a better idea about where to look today to find affordable reproductions of this historic millwork.  This system came into being rather abruptly after the Civil War.  Proprietary millwork catalogs were first issued in the 1870’s.  In the 1880’s several large Midwestern manufacturers banded together as the Sash, Door and Blind Association of the (so called at that time) Northwest to establish grading rules for the then dominant species, eastern white pine.  In 1890, they commissioned publisher Rand McNally to issue a single comprehensive molding catalog.  These catalogs were hardbound with different covers for each manufacturer and distributed to local lumber yards across North America.  Soon after, the Association established the “8000” series numbering system to identify each item.  Vestiges of this scheme (four digits beginning with “8”) can still be seen in reference to items in millwork catalogs today, even though the system itself no longer has any meaning or coherence.  Through changes in taste, struggles for dominance in the industry and through the migration of the centers of lumber production to the south and west, these “Universal Standard Molding Catalogs” were reissued every few years throughout the period.  As long as they stayed popular enough enjoy steady sales, moldings remained in the catalog and were distributed across the country without variation.

Before the Civil War, catalogs were little known.  This is what we call “First Era” millwork. Taste was guided by “pattern books”, illustrated essays on the principles of design produced by celebrated master builders such as Asher Benjamin and his successors.  These were intended to teach design skills, not to furnish design elements and they rarely presented full profiles of millwork.  Certainly anyone who has worked with “antebellum” structures can attest that moldings from the period don’t always match up from builder to builder, never mind across any significant geographic area.  With the rise of industrialization after the Civil War, however, and the resulting concentration of millwork production with a few companies, the producers found it necessary to standardize production and to take control of the public’s taste, hence the creation of the “Catalogs”.  For a long period after WWII, the role of wood in architecture diminished, but now with the emergence of a new set of influences, period structures and styles have made a modest but solid return to viability.  The same “Universal Standard” profiles, uniform documentation and wide distribution that served the timber industrialists so well a century ago, are now making the moldings of the “Universal Standard Catalogs” well adapted for a second wave of distribution.

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